Eddie and Sue Arthur

What’s wrong with systematic theology?

Last weekend during a church service the leader talked about a training scheme which the church is running saying something along the lines of we study the Bible in more detail using Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology. Now, I might be awkward, but I’m far from convinced that studying a systematic theology is a good way to learn about the Bible. To be honest, I’m not sure it’s a good way to learn anything, apart from the cultural and theological presuppositions of the author.

The problem with systematic theologies, is that they are systematic. God’s revelation to us in the Bible is not systematic. It’s messy, it’s complicated, it tells the story of people who mess up, of God who gets involved in the life of his creation and redeems it. The Bible narrative is compelling; sometimes exciting, sometimes complicated but it is not systematic. God did not give us a system, he gave us a story.

Systematic theologians go through the story, drawing threads together to make into a system – but the story isn’t neat and tidy and some bits don’t fit into their systems. What’s more, the system they choose is determined by their own background. Now, you might take a weighty systematic theology book and read through and think that it contains everything that you might ever want to know about God and the Bible. But as a challenge, look up the section on the theology of ancestors. You probably won’t find one. Yet, the Bible has tons to say about ancestors, think about the chapter upon chapter of begatting in the Old Testament. If that isn’t teaching on ancestors, what is? A systematic theology written by an African or an Asian might well have pages and pages on ancestors – but it doesn’t fit the system here in the West. This becomes a problem when (as often happens) people start to mistake the system for the message of the Bible. Important things (like ancestors) are left out because they don’t fit the system and other things get systematised to death (try reading what Grudem has to say about the Trinity) and lose the relational aspect that breaths life into the Scriptures.

My suspicion is that western minds, conditioned by a philosophical tradition that goes back thousands of years, default naturally to putting things into systems. Linnaeus did a great job systematising the natural world and the periodic table of the elements is a thing of beauty, but I remain unconvinced that what works for natural sciences actually works for the God who created nature.

John Hobbins has posted on a similar theme today: though he is more erudite and manages to quote in Hebrew and bring a Golden Retriever into the story – you can’t get much cooler than that.

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3 Comments on “What’s wrong with systematic theology?

  1. Hi Eddie,

    I’m in Australia (Sydney) now so found your recent post about Australian Christianity interesting.

    I’m not so sure about this comment about Systematic theology though.

    Surrounded now by Sydney anglicans I have a lot of sympathy with you!? (Hail to thee oh mighty Calvin 🙂 )

    However, you need to put alongside the dangers you list with systematics, the dangers of not having one… namely that we do not face the hard questions of trying to reconcile apparently contradictory elements of our biblical theology.

    In this pomo world it is very common to have a dig at systematics (with some good reasons) but often I find it is an excuse to major on the themes we like without having to put them into the ‘big’ picture.

  2. Have to disagree with your premise regarding systematics. A systematic does not pretend to elucidate every theme in Scripture (at least none that I have read). Certainly there are themes that could and should be considered (for example, ancestry). What systematic theologians are endeavoring to do is the formuate the development of the major doctrines of Scripture throughout history (i.e. God, revelation, sin, personhood, Christ, salvation, Spirit, the church – essentially, the themes of the Creed). Systematic theologicans aren’t concerned with identifying every biblical theme (that’s where Biblical Theology comes into play) but rather weaving together the main threads of the tapestry.

  3. Please, disagree away. That’s the whole point of this blogging thing and part of the reason why I post things which are contentious to try and stimulate a debate.

    I do, of course, use Systematic Theologies and there are two hefty tomes on the shelf above my desk. But I use them in very restricted contexts. The problem is that they do weave together the threads of the tapestry in selective fashion – they choose what the threads are and they weave them according to the position of the weaver. That’s why you can get Systematic Theologies from such a wide variety of backgrounds. As long as you know the background of the theologian, you are on a safe footing with the system – but I’m still not convinced that Systematics is a good way to teach the Bible – as per my post.

    Keep commenting.

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